On Sept. 15, 1970, President Nixon said in an Oval Office meeting with his national security team that a regime in Chile headed by left-wing Salvador Allende would "not be acceptable to the United States," and he instructed the CIA to help mount a coup if that happened.
It is a part of cold-war history that the American government was ready to intervene to unseat left-wing regimes from Chile to Nicaragua.
Not so well-known is that our government was less than zealous in protecting Americans who got into trouble with dictatorial regimes.
In 1980, three American nuns and a religious volunteer were kidnapped, raped, and murdered in El Salvador. Eventually, five soldiers were convicted of the crime.
But US government investigators did not interrogate commissioned officers in command, some of them trained at the US Army's College of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga.
UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick said at the time, "The nuns were also political activists."
Secretary of State Alexander Haig testified on Capitol Hill, "Perhaps the vehicle in which the nuns were riding may have tried to run a road block."
Hard to believe? The Salvadoran regime was an anti-communist ally.
In 1992, a Guatemalan guerrilla leader, Efraín Bámaca Velásquez, married to an American woman, Jennifer Harbury, was captured by the Army, tortured, and killed.
It took three years and the intervention of Rep. Robert Torricelli to learn the truth - that a Guatemalan colonel on the American payroll had ordered the killing.
And now, once again, Chile, and the 26-year mystery about what happened to Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi, two young supporters of Allende who disappeared during the military coup that brought Gen. Augusto Pinochet to power.
Thanks to President Clinton's order last February to declassify documents bearing on human rights violations under Pinochet, we know that the State Department long ago concluded that the Pinochet government killed the men in 1973.
A 1976 internal report of the State Department said the Chilean government "might have believed this American [Horman] could be killed without negative fallout from the US government." And, "US intelligence may have played an unfortunate part in Horman's death."
The report suggests that he was fingered for the Pinochet regime by a CIA officer undercover as a consular official.
And all this time the State Department was telling Horman's parents they had no idea what had happened to him.
What is one to think of a government siding with dictators against its own citizens and their kin?
What is one to think of a government, obsessed with shoring up what Mrs. Kirkpatrick called "moderately repressive regimes," forgetting the elementary duty of any government - to protect its own nationals?
(c) Copyright 2000 The Christian Science Publishing Society.